Bina Agarwal

2017 Balzan Prize for Gender Studies

For challenging established premises in economics and the social sciences by using an innovative gender perspective; for enhancing the visibility and empowerment of rural women in the Global South; for opening new intellectual and political pathways in key areas of gender and development.

Bina Agarwal was born in India in 1951. She was educated at the Universities of Cambridge, UK, and Delhi, India. At Cambridge she completed the Economics Tripos and in 1978 earned her PhD in Economics from the University of Delhi. In 2009 she became Director of the Institute of Economic Growth at the University of Delhi, where she had been Professor of Economics since 1988. In 2012 she accepted the Chair in Development Economics and Environment at the Università di Manchester, UK. She has also held distinguished visiting positions at many universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Minnesota and Sussex. She has been engaged actively in public policy, serving on the UN Committee for Development Policy (New York) and the Planning Commission of the Government of India. Her work has been recognised with many honours and prizes, including the Padma Shri from the President of India in 2008; the Leontief prize from Tufts University for “advancing the frontiers of economic thought” in 2010; and most recently the 2017 Louis Malassis International Scientific Prize for an “Outstanding Career in Agricultural Development”.

Bina Agarwal is a development economist, who from the beginning of her impressive career has been interested in finding pathways to change the lives of poor rural women in India and the Global South in general. Her work on women’s land and property rights in South Asia was instantly recognised as pathbreaking, and won multiple awards. Her wide-ranging concerns also include key areas of gender and development: poverty and inequality; agriculture, technology and food security; and environmental governance. By asking original questions and following a truly interdisciplinary trajectory combining economics, law, ethnography, sociology, political science and anthropology, she has arrived at original insights and answers – answers which have not only opened up a global scholarly research agenda but also influenced the policy programmes of governments, NGOs, and international agencies concerned with eliminating gender inequality in all its dimensions.

Agarwal’s scholarly output bears witness to the unusually wide range of her expertise. Her work provides a critique of gender-biased perceptions of women’s economic contributions, a theoretical framework for understanding the potential of women’s empowerment within and beyond the family, as well as empirical analyses of the complex barriers to development. Among the numerous books and articles she has authored and edited, A Field of One’s Own (1994), a seminal work on women’s rights in land and property, is the best known. In this meticulously researched comparative analysis of five countries in South Asia, Agarwal argues that strengthening women’s independent rights in land and property are essential not only for improving their economic status but also for their social empowerment. In another rigorous and groundbreaking study, Gender and Green Governance (2010), Agarwal explores whether women’s greater involvement in forest management committees can improve forest conservation. Based on an impressive body of primary field data collected both personally and with teams of young researchers under her direction, she points out the weaknesses of top-down approaches to green governance, and demonstrates that a critical mass of women in the executive committees of community forest institutions can significantly enhance forest condition and biodiversity, by improving the quality of environmental governance.

Agarwal’s work enriches Gender Studies with a much-needed South Asian perspective and its political economy approach. On the one hand, new insights provided by Gender Studies outside her own discipline of economics have stimulated her thinking and moved it into new directions. On the other hand, the originality of her research has contributed to gender theories globally and has made major contributions to bringing gender perspectives into development economics and  interdisciplinary fields of research. Her work is highly valued for its far-reaching impact in the academic world, as well as for the translation of socially relevant insights into national and international policy. Throughout her career, Agarwal has combined academic activities with active engagement in policy debates and campaigns, most notably in the successful campaign she led for reforming India’s inheritance laws (2005). It is this strong and constant social relevance of her work that deepens its power and influence. 

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